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‘Sentence First; Verdict Afterwards’: Civil Asset Forfeiture Ruins Lives on Basis of Allegations

by Jo Ellen Nott 

The FBI seized almost one million dollars from Carl Nelson and Amy Sterner Nelson in May of 2020 after having shown up the month before to their home in West Seattle to let Carl know he was being investigated for allegedly “depriving Amazon of his honest services.” The FBI accused Carl, in his capacity as a former real estate transaction manager for the colossal tech company, of showing favor to certain developers and getting them deals in exchange for illegal kickbacks. Carl has denied the charge vehemently declaring “that never happened and is exactly why I’ve fought as long and hard as I have. It’s that simple.”

To say that the Nelsons’ life has changed is a vast understatement. They sold their house and car, liquidated their retirement funds, and moved their family of six to Amy’s sister’s basement after the draconian civil asset forfeiture. Amy told a reporter from Reason online magazine: “We went from living a life where we were both working full-time to provide for our four daughters to really figuring out how we were going to make it month to month. It’s completely changed my belief in fairness.”

Amy cries remembering the months she spent trying to shield her four daughters from possibly seeing their father arrested. Carl had asked the Bureau if he could turn himself in quietly in the event the government made good on the criminal indictment they had threatened him with. The FBI denied his request, causing Amy to get her daughters up before sunrise every morning and take them to a park some distance away to prevent them from seeing their father taken away in handcuffs.

Even though the FBI was only investigating Carl, the Bureau saw fit to seize Amy’s savings from her decade of working as a lawyer and her proceeds from a co-working start-up she had founded. The probe into alleged wrongdoing on Carl’s part has not resulted in a single charge against him almost two years later, yet the family had lost virtually everything on the basis of a mere investigation thanks to the horror that is civil asset forfeiture.

In the second week of February 2022, the government agreed to return $525,000 of the $892,000 it seized, with Amy and Carl forfeiting about $109,000. The remainder has been depleted by court fees. Amy set up a GoFundMe to help recoup some of the lost assets remarking, “Not much has changed for us.” The couple accepted the settlement from the government to have money for attorney’s fees. Carl is still a defendant in a massive federal lawsuit against Amazon. 


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